Sromona Bhattacharyya Bhattacharyya
Hailing from Kolkata and now a resident of Bengaluru, Sromona is a multimedia journalist who has a knack for digging stories that truly deserve attention.
Cities, small towns and rural hinterlands in India have been grappling with the issue of fake news. The penetration of social media and chatting apps like Facebook and Whatsapp have paved the way for a new era of news dissemination where perpetrators aiming to create mass hysteria have been creating and sharing fake news. This appears to have become a challenge for law enforcement today.
Even though there seems to be no end to the ever-growing problem of fake social media forwards, Superintendent Of Police (SP), Rema Rajeshwari of Telangana’s Jogulamba Gadwal district crafted a genius mechanism which aims to curb the menace of fake forwards.
Shortly after assuming the role of the district’s SP in mid-March of 2018, IPS Rema Rajeshwari was made aware of the problem of false messages depicting violence against children which were terrifying the local villagers.
Talking to The Logical Indian, Rema gave a vivid description of the day when such Whatsapp messages came to her notice. She said, “I remember that it was March 27 when one of my village officers of Guvvaldinne village brought to my notice that there was some unrest among the villagers because of some WhatsApp forwards on child kidnappers in the area.”
The local police then retrieved many gory and explicit images which claimed that a child kidnapping gang was on the loose in the district which petrified the local villagers. She said that the villagers who usually slept outside their houses refused to do so, owing to the messages.
Rema instantly understood the magnitude of the matter and to prevent it from escalating any further, swang right into the action. “This is a border district, and it has always been sensitive. Fake forwards like these can easily turn violent, and we wanted to prevent that at the earliest,” she said.
In the first week of April, Rema instructed the village officers – a concept of community policing devised by her, to conduct awareness campaigns across different villages in the district.
Rema started the initiative of village policing seven years ago with the intention of bridging the gap between police and the people. The village police who were otherwise educating villagers on the evils of child marriage and bonded labour were now entrusted with the vital task of conducting massive awareness campaigns to stop fake news from spreading.
Even after routine campaigns against fake news in the villages, Rema found that her mechanism was not proving to be very efficient. The social media monitoring team in the district conducted random checks on villager’s phones in May, only to find out that the menace has not stopped.
That is when Rema decided to try and teach the villagers using creative means like songs and drama. “These villages have a low-literacy rate and whatever campaigning we did went in vain because no one was interested in that,” she said.
Rema said, “We employed local drummers from the villages, who played their dappu (drums) to convey important information. We educated them on what to say. I realised that these messages would not stop pouring, so we have been requesting people to prevent it from further circulation and to delete them.”
She said that this mechanism proved to be much more effective among the villagers since it had an emotional connect where they were made to understand the brevity of the matter culturally. Moreover, Rema’s cultural troupe consisting of policemen and women who are apt in singing started composing songs about the perils of fake news in local languages.
A combination of readily available cheap smartphones and fast internet connections at a nominal rate has facilitated the spread of fake news. Rema understands that most of the villagers under her jurisdiction are not equipped to tell real news from a fake one. “Since they cannot read or write, gory images and voice clips which are in local languages appeal more to them. Fearing that their children might be harmed, local youth volunteers with the purpose of rendering justice form groups and interrogate anyone who enters their village”, said Rema.
For the most part, such instances of mob justice have led to violent incidents which resulted in death. For people in villages, the smartphones often end up becoming their sole source of information and entertainment.
To eliminate the problem entirely, Rema has also consulted many village leaders who have now added the village officers in local Whatsapp groups to monitor content that keeps flowing into the chatting app.
After much efforts, Rema has found that although the spread of fake news has not stopped entirely, the villagers are now more aware. Additionally, she has been approached by her juniors in Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu who are keen to implement similar drives in their districts.
Traditional news media outlets hardly reach Indians who are located in rural areas of the country. For them, social media and Whatsapp forwards act at sources of information where they often become a prey of misinformation. It is the authorities at the grassroots level who can bridge the gap and make the rural folks understand the evils of forwarding information without verifying.
The Logical Indian applauds Rema Rajeshwari for her initiative and wishes for others to walk in a similar path as well. For it is them, who can genuinely educate the masses and prevent further mob attacks in India’s rural hinterlands.
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